If you’re into organic gardening, you’re probably well aware of the plethora of beneficial insects, microbes, and nematodes out there that will happily help you protect your plants from the damaging 2% or so of the insect world. We don’t want to repeat stuff you’ve read a hundred times, so we thought we’d provide a few tips on helping out these helpful critters … as well as other beneficial organisms you may never have considered beneficial in the past.
Build a Bug Bath for Beneficial Insects
Beneficial bugs like ladybugs, praying mantids, parasitic wasps, and lacewings need clean, accessible water just as much as plants and birds do. If you live in an arid area where rain and dew can’t provide what they need, or if you’re suffering under a drought, then you should consider scattering a few “bug baths” around your garden. Creating one is simple: just fill a shallow disposable dish (such as a margarine bowl) with small stones and add just enough water to create small pools between the stones. The water should be shallow and the bath should offer plenty of “high ground” for the bugs to climb up on, so they don’t drown. Be sure to keep an eye on them and add water as necessary. It’s also important to replace leftover water occasionally, so it doesn’t provide habitat for mosquito and black fly larvae.
Let Your Leafcutter Bees Be
While nobody really likes to see their plants damaged, don’t freak out if you notice neat ¾-inch semicircular nibbles taken out of your rose bush leaves. What you’re seeing is a good thing, because it means that leafcutter bees are on the job. These solitary bees, which belong to the interestingly-named Megachile genus, use the cut leaves to create their nest cells. You can tell them from honeybees by their darker color and less aggressive manner.
While leafcutter bees are more likely to be encountered in the western half of the continent, they can be found in most of the lower 48 states. So what makes them a good thing? Like all bees, they visit many flowers during the course of a day, so they’re great pollinators of many types of garden plants. If the cut leaves annoy you, just remove them and throw them on the compost heap; if you’re unwilling to sacrifice any leaves to the leafcutters, then cover your plants with cheesecloth. Insecticide usually isn’t effective against leafcutting, and it’s dangerous to your other beneficial insects.
All Pond Snails Are Not Created Equal
If you have a water feature in your yard or garden, at some point you’ll have to deal with an algae invasion. Water-dwelling snails can be a great ally in your fight against pond scum, but be careful which types you enlist if you also have aquatic plants in your pool or fountain. Ramshorn snails, which have flat, spiral shells, scavenge only on plant debris and algae and are perfectly safe for your decorative aquatics. However, great pond snails — which have tall, conically-spiraled shells — will happily eat your aquatic plants along with your algae. If too many of the latter are around, try floating lettuce leaves on your pond overnight, then remove them and the attached snails the next day.
Protect Your Corn from Raccoons with Squash Plants
Raccoons are crafty critters, but one thing they like to be able to do while eating is to stand up and look around occasionally. If they’re breaking into your corn crop, you can take advantage of this tendency by planting squash, gourds, or pumpkins among your cornstalks. As they grow, the vines will climb up the stalks, significantly reducing visibility, which will make the corn less attractive to the raccoons. Plus, raccoons and other animals find the texture of their foliage to be uncomfortable, so they’re more likely to stay away. The fact that you can end up with another edible crop is nothing to sneeze at, either.
Weeds as Beneficial Organisms
As the saying goes, weeds are just plants we haven’t found uses for yet. Sometimes, they can be useful just as they are. Stunted weeds can indicate soil deficiencies that could spell death for your lawn or garden plants. Furthermore, you shouldn’t till under or yank up weeds just because they’re there; otherwise, you may soon discover that your topsoil is gone with the wind and rain. Instead, let the weeds control soil erosion until you’re ready to plant. If you absolutely can’t stand the weeds, wait until the weather’s forecast to be dry and still for about a week, get rid of the weeds, and sow a fast-growing grass seed. Rye grass will work quite well if the weather’s not too warm. Then, when it’s time to plant, you can just plow the grass under to serve as a nitrogen-rich “green manure” for your new crops.
Beneficial is as beneficial does. Some critters and plants that you might otherwise dismiss can be surprisingly beneficial under some circumstances, and it never hurts to make their job easier. It’s a piece of cake, actually—or as easy as pie, or whatever bakery-based analogy you prefer. And it won’t cost you much dough, either.